Archive for the ‘TED Talks’ Category

TED Talks for STEM

In Academe, we tend to think of scholarly journal publications as “the gold standard.” I’m here to argue that in the Digital Age, there is a new gold standard for disseminating findings, and it is way more than publishing in a joural and then reading your paper at a conference.

Easy-to-understand video explaining your scholarly work for a more general audience is the new standard, and TED (Technology, Education, and Design) is the gold standard of that work. If you haven’t ever seen TED Talks, you need to go out and do a little sampling.

TED is an absolutely stunning conference which puts the word “interdisciplinary” as we know it in Academe, to shame. Here is a small collection of some of my favorites in the STEM fields. My advice? Give up television for a few weeks and explore the TED collection instead. You will gain a radical new understanding of the world of technology that we (academics and the rest of the population) are about to enter.

David Bolinsky Animates a Cell (Biology, Medicine, Animation, Chemistry – TED 2007, released 2007)

Blaise Aquera y Arcas: Jaw-dropping Photosynth Demo (Computer Science, Mathematics, Social Networks, Photography)

Robert Full: How Engineers Learn from Evolution (Engineering, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Physiology – TED 2002, released 2008)

Jonathan Harris: The Web’s Secret Stories (Social Networks, Computer Science, Art, Behavioral Science)

George Dyson: The Birth of the Computer (Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics, History – TED 2003, released 2008)

Jill Bolte Taylor: My Stroke of Insight (Biology, Physiology, Neurology, Spirituality – TED 2008, released 2008)

Arthur Ganson: Sculpture that’s truly moving (Engineering, Physics, Art, Design, Graphic Design – TED 2004, released 2008)

Brian Cox: An Inside Tour of the World’s Biggest Supercollider (Physics, Engineering – TED 2008, released 2008)

Will Wright: Toys that make Worlds (Biology, Chemistry, Astronomy, Physics, Behavioral Science, Computer Science, Geology – TED 2007, released 2007)


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Density Equalizing Maps (Worldmapper)

Some of the really stunning visuals that Neil Turok used in his TED Prize talk were graphics from the website Worldmapper. The idea is that you start with a standard area map of the world, and then create cartograms (or density-equalizing maps) – resizing each territory to relate it with the variable being mapped.Here is a standard Land Area Map of the world:

Here is the map of Women’s Income:

John Pritchard, from the Geography Department at the University of Sheffield, was kind enough to give an overview of the process involved in the creation of these maps for this blog post:

A cartogram can be thought of as part map, part pie-chart. It attempts to keep areas (such as countries) in roughly the same place, whilst changing their size to reflect the value of a variable, for example, population. A world cartogram of population would show, for example, China and India as larger than their land area size, and Australia as smaller.

An algorithm that creates a cartogram from a map, preserving recognisable shapes whilst resizing countries, has been something of a‘holy grail’ of the cartogram world. The solution we use forWorldmapper, from Mark Newman and Michael Gastner at the University ofMichigan, is inspired by the diffusion of gas molecules. If you imagine the example of human population, the algorithm would have the effect of allowing the population of a densely populated country to ‘diffuse’, pushing back the boundaries of neighbouring, less densely-populated countries, until population density was evenly spread.

Interesting that this application to geography was inspired by chemistry!

Here are a few more maps that I found interesting. A map of War Deaths:

Finally, a great comparison of wealth in the years 1500 and 1990:

To learn more about how the maps were created, see the Worldmapper “About” page.

These maps would make a great exclamation point on a problem about percentages. For example, first you calculate the the percentage of deaths caused by war from several continents (North America, Africa, etc.). Then after the calculations, you can emphasize the findings with the appropriate map.

Most of the maps (at least, all the ones that I looked at) are accompanied with data or descriptive numerical information that you could easily build a word problem from.

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Neil Turok advocates for AIMS

Neil Turok is a theoretical physicist and winner of a 2008 TED Prize. In 2003, Turok founded the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS).

His TED wish? To grow AIMS and promote the study of math and science in Africa.

This is a really inspiring TED talk … a little big about his theories of the universe and the big bang, and mostly about his motivation for founding AIMS, and its successes.

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Today I want to be an Astronomer…

What’s the likelihood of stumbling across two kickin’ applications on astronomy in one day? Apparently, pretty good.

The first application I saw was released on TED Talks this week – a program called Worldwide Telescope – and an application by Microsoft (if you can believe that). The application must run on the same software platform as Photosynth (Seadragon). Worldwide Telescope will eventually be housed on the Internet at (not much there to see yet).

The second application is called Google Sky (launched today). This application has the advantage of being “live” right now. So you can go play immediately, zooming and panning through the sky in the same way you navitage in Google Maps.

If you haven’t seen Photosynth yet (previewed to a stunned audience last at TED last year), it’s an amazing application of trigonomety, the Internet, and computing power (view the TED Talk on Photosynth here and go to the Photosynth website here where you can try out a “preview” of Photosynth).

Apparently, I now have a feature series (like Technology Reviews) called “Today I want to be a …” (I figure four blog posts by the same title is a series). The previous posts in the series are:

I know that Pi-Day is tomorrow, and I should be excited to be celebrating a math holiday, but honestly I feel a little down. Where are the cool “explorer-style” applications for mathematics? Is the TI N-Spire supposed to do it for me when I’m comparing it to stuff like this? This is exactly the kind of feeling that led me to get three degrees as an undergraduate (math, chemistry, and biology … thanks for asking). Math, even with the cool applications that we have available to us today, is simply not as engaging at the lower levels as the sciences. I doubt very much that students go to Wolfram Demonstrations to “explore” concepts. Nobody logs in to MyMathLab, WebAssign or WebWorks just to “play” with the mathematics they are learning.

  • Maybe Wolfram can create an interactive galaxy of Wolfram Demonstrations (similar to Jonathan Harris’ Universe), where the “constellations” are mapped out through similar topics connecting the WDs or a TED-style interface for browsing? Only let’s just make all the demos “live” and not hidden behind a download and player.
  • Maybe Apple can make a touch screen calculator capable of graphing in COLOR with easy zoom and pan options at the touch of a finger and functionality for exploration where every option isn’t buried under a series of 5 menus (hey – if they can put EA’s game Spore on that phone, it’s certainly not out of reach).
  • Maybe the monotony of algebra and precalculus can be absorbed by an online virtual world where students learn through puzzles and concept-oriented games (sorry DimensionM – I’ve played you, and you’re just not ready for the College crowd – too much game, not enough content).
  • Maybe math teachers should act as roving content instructors – showing up at science, business, and computer classes to conduct “just in time” math teaching and working with other instructors to seamlessly integrate content into the rest of the curriculum.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m tired of longing for the great educational tools available in other fields. If we all push together, maybe by NEXT pi day, I’ll have something more exciting than pi to be excited about! All together now … let’s push our way into the 21st century with the power of Web 2.0.

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Education = Creativity (True or False?)

The 2008 TED conference is going on in California right now, and so I find myself watching some old TED talks … wishing I were there and pining for the new talks that will begin appearing soon.

So here’s an older TED talk, from Sir Ken Robinson: Do Schools kill creativity?

Some quotes from the talk:

“It’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp.”

“My contention is that creativity, now, is important in education as literacy.”

Paraphrasing: “If you were to view our education system from the point of view of an alien, you’d be forced to conclude that the purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce University professors. They’re the people who come out of the top.” Ouch!

Public education came into being (around the world) to meet the needs of industrialism.

Best quip (paraphrased) “University professors are just another form of life. There’s something curious about professors – not all of them – but typically, they live in their heads. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads.” (Wow – what a great insight! This totally describes me!)

“The structure of education is shifting beneath our feet …”

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Math Provides Beauty and Truth in Physics

Murray Gell-Mann gives a TED Talk entitled Beauty and Truth in Physics.

The second part of his presentation is subtitled “Math Matters” (you can forward to this one)

Quote from Math Matters: “We express these things mathematically, and when the mathematics is very simple… when, in terms of some mathematical notation you can write the theory in a very brief space, without a lot of complication, that’s essentially what we mean by beauty or elegance.

The third part of his presentation is subtitled “Symmetry Matters” (again, you can forward to this)

As our notation improves and we are able to incorporate symmetry into equations, the equations become simpler and more elegant. Here is an example (from the talk) showing the progression in the equations for Relativity – I think that a multivariable calculus class would probably be able to appreciate it best:

This was a great little tidbit – a quote from Newton on why he was not mentioning his theory of gravity in one of his books:

Newton was worried that he would be labeled an “extravagant freak” and that readers would thus dismiss the rest of the book.

Best quip of the talk – Newton could have really written a great essay on “What I did on my Summer Vacation” (referring to the time that Newton spent away from school during the plague years – some of the most productive time of his life).

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TED features Mathemagics

This little 15-minute TedTalk, Arthur Benjamin races calculators from the audience doing the calculations in his head. He is very entertaining and I think students would enjoy the presentation, since they are often under the impression that nobody has every done calculations without a calculator. He squares a random 4-digit number from the audience in his head just as fast as the calculators.

For those of you that teach probablity, he does a neat trick guessing the missing digits of 7-digit numbers (this is somewhere around the 7-minute mark).

For elementary ed, there is a nice “number” on guessing the day of the week when someone was born based on the birth date (8-9 minute mark).

For you algebra teachers, he does the square of a 5-digit number, going through the thought process out loud (starting around the 11-minute mark). Cleverly, he squares the number by breaking it into a binomial:
(57683)2 = (57000+683)2 = 570002 + 57000*683*2 + 6832

I’ll let you work on that one in your head…

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African Fractals: A TedTalk about MATH!

Ron Eglash has a wonderful newly posted Ted Talk on Fractals, he discusses:

  • Cantor sets
  • Helge von Koch’s variation on Cantor sets
  • Self-similar structures in nature
  • Royal insignia (rectangles within rectangles)
  • African village which is a ring of rings
  • Circular and four-fold symmetry use in different cultures
  • Algorithms and the relationship to learning stories

  • Optimization for building african wind fences
  • Bamana sand divination (random number generator from the 12th century)
  • Every digital circuit in the world began in Africa… you’ll have to watch to see the reasoning
  • Usefulness of using heritage-oriented mathematics to motivate minority students to learn mathematics
  • Self-organization is in the brain, the Google search engine, and why the AIDS virus is spreading… the African methods of self-organization are robust, well-established and should be studied

Eglash’s website, Culturally Situated Design Tools, contains programs and applets that highlight cultural heritage. There are LOTS of geometry references on the website, including several cultural references to Cartesian coordinates (navajo rug weaver, graffit grapher, etc.) for those of you teaching algebra.

You could easily show this video in your class if you are teaching something where it might be appropriate. Total running time is 17 minutes. If you go to the TedTalks website for this one, you can download the whole video (in case you don’t have Internet in your classroom).

I think it would take a little while to work your way through all the material on the Culturally Situated Design Tools website, but if you teach in a school with a large minority population, I can see how it might definitely be a worthwhile way to spend some time.

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Progress in Technology is EXPONENTIAL

Today I am forwarding you on to Ray Kurzweil’s Ted Talk “How technology’s accelerating power will transform us”

This whole talk is about exponential trends. There are several beautiful log-plots of modern examples of exponential growth and decay.

DNA Sequencing, World-wide-web, size of computers, Moore’s Law, evolution of technology, etc. He also talks about their research creating mathematical models to predict trends in technology.

There is also an interesting segment in here on proposed nanobot red blood cells (tiny spheres that act as red blood cells, only more efficiently)… fascinating.

Kurzweil predicts we will have succeded at reverse-engineering the human brain by the year 2020. By 2029… we won’t even see computers anymore. Computers will be integrated into our brains, clothing, and bodies. The merging of our brains with technology will provide us with the intelligence to evolve to the ability to understand our own intelligence.

Just for the record, I will still be YEARS away from retirement in 2029… so while this might not concern you… I have to consider it a real possibility during my teaching career. How will we train a brain that integrates nanobots? Will that be considered “cheating” or no different than the use of a graphing calculator to assist in drawing a function? Yikes!

I became curious about Ray Kurzweil after watching his talk, and spent some time poking around his websites and Kurzweil Technologies. You might find those sights interesting too.

In particular, I ended up at a roundtable discussion transcript between Stephen Wolfram (of Mathematica and my favorite, Wolfram Demonstration Project) and Ray Kurzweil where they debate (amongst other things) the role of mathematical models and whether everything can be modeled. Is the universe digital? Read and see.

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